It’s officially December, which means it’s officially “best of” season. I thought that’s what this blog post would be: a round-up of the best things I read this year. My favorite books aren’t what’s important. A great blog filler, sure, but it’s what I learned from them is what really matters.

Normally I’m an upmarket/literary fiction girl who reaches for the award-winning books over what everyone else is talking about. You should see the book haul I shoved into my luggage after AWP. But this year has been hard on me, mentally and physically, and I started to change things up. I thought that reading outside my comfort zone, turning towards police procedurals and mysteries, would be “easy reading” for me. I was wrong.

My library hold list and my Netgalley requests are all mysteries, thrillers, and books with a high level of suspense. I was quickly judgmental (a self-proclaimed literary snob) and thought that there was a formal to follow, a mystery to solve, and happy endings within the last few pages. I was very wrong.

I was skeptical of the books that proclaimed that they were the next Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn created the most hated main characters since Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and give me the biggest twist I’ve ever read. How can anyone out-twist Flynn? Who else could make me read a book faster than I’ve read Harry Potter books?

Rena Olsen and The Girl Before. Amy Gentry and Good as Gone. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go. Noa Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

The thing is, I needed to branch out of my echo chamber of a bookshelf. I needed to learn more about how to twist clues and create suspense by having a character notice (or not notice) the smallest detail in the story. Right now, I’m reading Tana French’s The Trespasser and I didn’t think I’d get past the first few pages. But I kept reading and now I’m staying up until five in the morning reading, wanting to find out more about Detective Antoinette Conway and the several layers of mysteries she’s working to solve. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely reading for fun, but I can see the way French is building plot which each chapter. I can see the way no dialogue, no direction, no single scene is wasted.

So yes, reading in your genre is very important when you’re a writer. But it’s important to branch out, too. Look outside the box, see what you can learn from other genres. See what you can learn about suspense, or plot building, or character development through books you think are going to follow a specific formula. You don’t need a fancy degree or $40,000 of debt to learn how to be a better writer.

Being a better writer starts by opening a book.

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